Monday, September 29, 2014

Outside the Government: The Hounds of Baskerville

It’s January 8th, 2012. Flo Rida is at number one with “Good Feeling,” wiht Coldplay, Jessie J, Rihanna, and Raio Cruz also charting. In news, Gary Dobson and David Norris were finally convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and Michelle Bachman dropped out of the Presidential race following Rick Santorum’s win (by a stunningly small 34-vote margin) in the Iowa Caucuses. 

While on television it’s The Hounds of Baskerville, an adaptation of what is arguably the most famous Sherlock Holmes story ever. This speaks to the way in which the confidence shown by Scandal in Belgravia was, broadly speaking, reflected in every aspect of Sherlock’s second season. From the start, Moffat and Gatiss announced the grandeur of their plans, with the still memorable trio of one-word teases: Woman, Hound, Fall. Immediately the three stories being used snapped into place, and nobody made any excuses - the plan was clearly to tackle the three most iconic Sherlock Holmes stories not to be Study in Scarlet

In hindsight, thinking about it, this was always going to be the tricky one. “Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem” are both massive stories in part because they put Sherlock Holmes in extremely unusual and dramatic positions. They largely modernize themselves. But The Hound of the Baskervilles is iconic more because it was a tremendously popular novel at the time, and has been frequently adapted. It’s not a story that involves any particularly major change for Sherlock Holmes. It’s just a particularly classic Sherlock Holmes story. Although, adding to the difficulties, Sherlock is actually not in large swaths of it.

Still, certain aspects of the approach all but decided themselves. Certainly this had to be the middle episode, by dint of being the one that least disrupted Sherlock as a character. It was also as self-evidently the one Mark Gatiss should write as Scandal in Belgravia was the one that Moffat should write. Past that, however, the way to approach this is almost all question marks and challenges to overcome.

To some extent, however, with Gatiss in place the solutions to most of these challenges became, if not self-evident, at least simpler. Gatiss is and always will be a nostalgia artist. And so when tackling something like adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles, he was always going to stick as closely as possible to the iconography of the original. And yet in many regards his most important decision in terms of how this episode works is the major change, which is to change Baskerville from being Henry’s family name to being a mysterious government research facility. Gatiss’s interview-stated reasons for this - that conspiracy theories are what’s scary these days - are as idiosyncratic as most of Gatiss’s stated plot logic, but it nevertheless proved a savvy choice for other reasons.

In effect, what the decision to have a gleaming white research facility as one of the major settings for this story did was, over the course of ninety minutes, make it so that it could go back and forth between the Dartmoor setting and a visually different place, allowing each location room to breathe. It would have been easy to just turn the gothic horror elements of this story up to eleven, and the decision to have large amounts of time in which the story was doing something else helps ensure that, visually, this story rolls along nicely. McGuigan’s reliably excellent direction goes a long way towards making it work as well.

But under the hood, there’s just not a lot there that’s non-obvious. This is Sherlock Holmes solving a gothic horror mystery. It contains Sherlock’s at this point trademark mixture of extreme textual fidelity and larking around, swapping out solutions from other stories, placing red herring characters, and generally containing lots of nods to the larger Sherlock Holmes canon while pointedly making sure it has enough to surprise the hardcore Holmes geeks. That’s most of it.

But equally, that’s largely the point. This is the story that was picked for this season for no reason other than the iconic nature of the original text. It’s not there to do anything big and flashy. It’s there to demonstrate that Sherlock can do a good version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, because no self-respecting series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations can ignore that story. It’s overstating the case to say that it’s the televisual equivalent of a contractual obligation album, not least because that would wrongly suggest that the episode is uninterested in quality, and it’s not. But this is an episode that’s largely concerned with squaring away the relationship between the program and the literary tradition of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the point where Sherlock declares itself to have finished the business of proving that it’s a worthy contributor to that canon. Which, to be honest, it probably has to do before it can tackle the big Moriarty story, so fair enough.

But it provides something of a stumbling block for the purposes of me writing this piece because, well, I was never that big of a Sherlock Holmes fan. Most of the reading I’ve done on the subject came in the wake of Sherlock. I’ve still not actually read The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to be honest, I’m not exactly dying to. So I’m not really the person you want writing your analysis of how The Hounds of Baskerville interacts with its source text. Normally that would be fine and I could go on and do something else, but in this case that’s not really an option. 

So instead I’m left with a handful of lovely details. Russell Tovey’s appreciably nuanced portrayal of Henry Knight, for instance, which finds considerable depth and nuance in the idea of a scared and terrified man through the clever trick of mostly holding back the choked and desperate register that Russell Tovey had by this point in his career perfected over on Being Human. Benedict Cumberbatch’s superlative performance of the post-hound scene at the hotel. The dodgy CGI hound. But they don’t quite add up to anything.

And yet there is one thing worth pointing out underneath all of this, which is that the way in which The Hounds of Baskerville works is unmistakably an approach with a massive debt to Doctor Who. Its basic design comes straight out of Gatiss’s mucking about with Doctor Who and the starting approach he takes to many of his stories. Gatiss has always been more likely than other writers to do a story that’s very straightforwardly about matching Doctor Who up with a given genre or setting, and he’s by this point developed something of a plug-and-play formula based on figuring out what needs to be included and then figuring out suitably new twists on it. A similar approach applies here - Gatiss has seemingly listed the key elements of The Hound of the Baskervilles and then figured out how to do new takes on them.

And it works. Certainly it solves the whole “the middle installment is the dud” problem of Season One by doing a story that feels meaty in its own right. That the meat comes from the reputation of the source material is ultimately irrelevant. As I said, this had to be done, if only so that Sherlock could move beyond being defined by its premise and start being defined on its own terms. This was a serviceable and entertaining ninety minutes of television. That it was outshone by the episode before it is hardly its fault. There’s not a Gatiss script in existence that wouldn’t have been a bit of a letdown after A Scandal in Belgravia. Hell, there’s barely a script by anyone that could have managed that. That it’s outdone by the one after it is similarly inevitable, given the cliffhanger. But while it may still be the less important middle volume of Sherlock, at least this time it works in its own right and on its own terms. It might even be an interesting take on a classic story. But that’s a matter for a blog other than this one. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Caretaker Review

So, since it seems to be the standard opening rhythm for these things, twenty minutes past transmission we’re at 59.7% at 8-10, with 8 being the most popular pick at 29.25%. Thread titles include "this years arc sucks," "A thing! again," "Clara's skirt!," and "Peter C was on fire tonight," which, really, seems so utterly standard it's hard to draw any conclusions. Twitter seems positive. For my part, I liked this a lot, although it definitely took the second viewing for me to really grok it, because I was busy being surprised by its tone on the first pass. I suspect it will watch much more smoothly to people who weren’t foolish (or fannish) enough to have expectations, however.

Ah, yes. Expectations. You know what, let’s take stock of where we are. First episode of autumn proper, halfway point of the season. It’s a good time for taking stock. 

In the UK, it’s well past night-time, to the point where this review is posting after people are largely gone to bed. Here, it’s a bit before sunset. My wife’s just left for her last night of work on the Oncology floor, before she transfers to a different floor to broaden her experience a bit. I’m up for a while yet, planning on writing some of the V for Vendetta chapter after this, after I walk the dog and grab some dinner. The episode’s not on for another three or four hours yet, so this is going to go out into the void to an extent, really playing only to the Americans who pirate it from the UK streams and late night Brits.

Based on the most current news, the program is on a ratings hot streak like it hasn’t seen in a while. All four episodes with final ratings have been in the top ten for the week, and there’s some high-powered competition on the air. This week is particularly dicey for ratings obsessives, as the BBC is confident enough to throw it up against The X-Factor. To be honest, expect a panic tomorrow when people start reporting the overnights, although it’s almost certainly going to stabilize out, whether through time-shifting (which always adds a healthy couple million to Doctor Who’s ratings) or through iPlayer (which doesn’t get counted yet in ratings, but adds another million or so).

There’s several ways in which the program feels like it’s genuinely in a different place than it was a year ago. This is worth noting explicitly in an episode that is, as much as anything, about reaffirming the end of the Eleventh Doctor era. This is the last episode of the half of the season where it was relatively easy to guess what you were going to get. It’s not that it’s been devoid of surprises - hello Listen - but the surprises have generally been within episodes. Every week after Deep Breath, you basically knew what you were going to get if you were paying attention to writers, episode titles, the Doctor Who Magazine descriptions, or, let’s be honest, the script and screener leaks, which vented an awful lot of spoilers into the atmosphere.

Which is to say that the central gamble of The Caretaker, which is that it’s not the remake of The Lodger that it initially pretends it’s going to be, is well-timed. As I said, this is an episode about reaffirming that the Eleventh Doctor era is over. It feels very conscious, as a transition point between Act One and Act Two of Season Eight, like it’s meant to relaunch the series.

It’s worth noting that Moffat did something very much like this with Matt Smith. Over-sized opening episode, a series of episodes that revisited past approaches to the show, all by Moffat save for one entrusted to Gatiss, and then an episode that serves as a jumping on point in which the companion’s boyfriend joins in the TARDIS fun, although that’s seemingly already being subverted as part of this transition into a string of six episodes we really don’t know a ton about. (Spoilers based only on information made public: scary space thing, scary mummy thing, weird-sounding one, really weird-sounding one, finale involving UNIT, Missy, and some Cybermen, and then Nick Frost at Christmas, possibly without Coleman. That’s a lot less than we could immediately infer from something like “Gareth Roberts is writing an episode called The Caretaker in which the Doctor takes a job as the caretaker at Coal Hill School.” We know exactly what to expect from that, much like we did from “Mark Gatiss does the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and it’s called Robot of Sherwood” or “Steve Thompson. Time Heist. It’s a bank robbery thing.” 

But that’s how new Doctors work. You dress them in the trappings of what went before and let them steadily replace anything they don’t like. And what Gareth Roberts does is write an episode that confidently assumes that the program isn’t going to feel like it did under Matt Smith. And it doesn’t, but let’s put off why for a moment and start with Roberts. And I do suspect this is mostly Roberts - I think Moffat was probably mostly just nipping and tucking at the character bits for Danny. There’s almost two Dannys in the story, although this is largely deliberate - I think there’s a real extent to which Moffat is keeping the character to himself, and that’s worth talking about too.

But let’s note the first half of the episode first, for somewhat obvious reasons. It, at least, is a fairly straight remake of The Lodger. Except, and this is key, everything is played ever so slightly off. The Lodger was a series of jokes about how ridiculous the Doctor was in a number of situations. The Caretaker is a series of jokes about Clara’s desperate attempts to keep the Doctor from intruding on her normal life. It’s mainly cringe comedy, which is a perfectly viable strain and still fairly in vogue. (I’m not quite sure about the white Doctor assuming the black man can only be a P.E. teacher, though. I know it’s written and played as being entirely about how Danny is a soldier, and there’s a satisfying return to the consciously diverse casting in this story, and I think every given contributor ends up being blameless, but I still worry about the optics on that. Let me put it this way - it’s a scene where you end up accurately imagining the #moffat hate tag on Tumblr in real time, as it plays.) But there’s a subtle change to how it plays out, with the Doctor being a secondary character in a comedy about Clara. 

But more importantly, this is only the first half of the episode. At the halfway point is a conscious change to a very different sort of story - one that’s basically a three-hander remake of An Unearthly Child in which Susan and Barbara’s roles are combined. I suspect this second part is the part on which Moffat earned his co-writing credit, although the only two scenes I’m confident were mostly him are the TARDIS scene where Danny accuses the Doctor of being an aristocratic officer, and the couch scene where Danny makes Clara promise to tell him if the Doctor ever pushes her too far. (I certainly don’t think this was a full Moffat-penned redraft in the way that I suspect Into the Dalek and Time Heist were.) 

Here we further develop what is clearly a major theme of this season in the Doctor’s dislike of soldiers, although as mentioned, Danny complicates that a lot by pointing out that the Doctor is an officer, which is, you know, pretty much fair all told. The final scene is deft, using the shared experiences of Clara and Danny as having gone through psychologically intense experiences under amazing and brilliant officers. 

But much of the credit for why this works is that Roberts has spun a spot-on adventure in which these plot points can be resolved. The trick to a Doctor Who story about relationships is that everybody has to solve their interpersonal problems by blowing up aliens. Roberts is more than capable of setting that up. Ultimately, the second half of this story is about Danny figuring out what it’s like to live in a Doctor Who story. Pointedly, he never does that badly. His initial guess that the Doctor is Clara’s space-dad was, notably, more or less the exact right guess the last time this sort of thing happened in Coal Hill School. His plan that the authorities should probably be contacted is sensible, if wrong-headed in this instance. He does well throughout, in other words - it’s just that he and the Doctor don’t get on. This is all well-structured, effective stuff into which the big emotional scenes can be inserted (and I include the “Danny and Clara at the window” scene, which I’m guessing Roberts as the primary author of). Roberts gets how this is played, with the Doctor as a slightly peripheral figure. His mixture of oblivious and clever is well-done. 

But as I said, the focus is really on what’s different. The new visual style, with longer scenes and shots, is very much in play here. Watch how many dialogue scenes are done as long takes that shift the camera focus among the actors, as opposed to done with shot-reverse-shot cutting. Doctor Who is trying not to look like everything else on screen again, in a satisfying way. 

And, of course, there’s Capaldi. In the lead-up to the season there was an absurd rumor that went around suggesting that Capaldi and Moffat were at loggerheads, or that Capaldi secretly hated the direction of the show and was trying to sabotage Moffat to save it, or that Moffat was on the way out and being replaced by Anthony Horowitz, or whatever. It was all very silly. But one increasingly suspects that there was a grain of truth in it, albeit one based on completely misunderstanding how collaboration works.

It’s not a terribly controversial statement to point out that Moffat is a very cerebral writer, whose work assumes a genre-aware and actively analytical reader. Not what you’d call surprising from someone with a graduate degree in English who taught for a few years before becoming a writer. But in Capaldi he has a very similar figure who’s an actor. Capaldi has directed, is very much a methodical, classical actor, and has a similar background to Moffat’s, including a degree of obsessiveness over Doctor Who.

I talked two weeks ago about how there’s a way in which Capaldi is Pertweeesque, in that he’s confident in simply playing the Doctor by picking an approach to the character for a given scene and just building it up out of the sorts of things Capaldi likes to do as an actor. A corollary to this is that he’s very much Troughtonesque, in that he dictates the tone of a scene by deciding how he’ll pitch his performance and requiring everyone else to respond to that, even if he doesn’t have a ton to do in the scene. (Watch the scene at the halfway point where the plot temporarily wraps up for a stellar example, particularly his “you can explain him to me,” which he delivers stunningly well. I quite like the decision to include all the emotional investment of a romance between the Doctor and Clara and none of the actual romance, and that line pays that approach off beautifully.) Such that in a real sense, every script gets one final rewrite from Capaldi, who redoes it via his performance.

And Capaldi does use this to pitch the entire thing slightly off kilter. He spends the first half, even when he does have comedic scenes, mostly underplaying them, with occasional bursts of excess, doled out carefully, so that they’re surprising and at times unsettling. It’s a good approach that so far has done a good job of making the show feel fresh and like it still can find new ways of doing its old tricks. Which, after fifty-one years, one sort of suspects can actually be done more or less continuously, but the fact that it’s possible doesn’t make it easy.

So there is a sort of tension between writer and actor, but I daresay that’s the point. That’s how collaboration works. I have zero doubt it’s why Moffat hired Capaldi - to get an actor who would do interesting things with his material and push him to write interesting things to do. Which is why the little touches of Smith - the River mention, the Lodger structure, Adrian, the frost fares - are all so apropos. Because they feel as much like a nod to what the show used to do as the tacit references to An Unearthly Child do. 

It’s fresh and exciting, and I can’t wait to see what the next chunk of episodes are like. I expect a lot more like this - ones where the first watch is in many ways spent being surprised as to what sort of show it is. There’s a fair case to be made that surprising the audience with what show it is in a given week is what Doctor Who is for. I think this may be my favorite season ever. 
  • Love, love, love Courtney. “Disruptive influence.” “NICE TO MEET YOU!” That’s the Doctor in a six word scene. Really thrilled she’s back next week. I think taking her on a scary episode is a really interesting move.
  • It’s not fair to say that Danny is a remake of John from Sherlock, but you can see the way that Moffat’s previous experience in fleshing out a character who’s defined in part by being a soldier informs the ways in which he’s sketching Danny quickly. He knows how to give this type of character a lot of depth very quickly.
  • Allow me to in no way be the first to be sad that there’s no Ian Chesterton cameo. Still, it’s surely not the last visit to Coal Hill. Although I rather like the way the past is nodded to here, with a mention that there’s been rather a lot of artron energy through Coal Hill over the years.
  • Rankings!

  1. Listen
  2. Deep Breath
  3. The Caretaker
  4. Time Heist
  5. Into the Dalek
  6. Robot of Sherwood

Friday, September 26, 2014

Talking About Meatballs (The Last War in Albion Part 63: American Gothic)

This is the thirteenth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the second and third volumes. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. The third is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore introduced a new character, a working class British occultist named John Constantine, to serve as Swamp Thing's guide for a journey across America typically referred to as the American Gothic arc.

"I am not talking about meatballs. I am talking about STEAK!" -Diamanda Galas, "Wild Women with Steak Knives"

This serves as the beginning of the so-called “American Gothic” arc (the name was never actually used in the comics), a storyline in which Constantine leads Swamp Thing on a tour of the United States to confront various classic horror tropes like vampires and werewolves. The timing is apropos - Moore had taken his first trip to the United States in August of 1984, midway through the Arcane arc of Swamp Thing, and the same month that Marvelman ceased publication in Warrior. There he had hobnobbed with DC executives and gotten variously praised and treated as a bit of a golden boy. He hit it off some of the DC staff - particularly with his editor, Karen Berger, and with Julius Schwartz, a long time DC editor, who impressed Moore by having the signature of H.P. Lovecraft in a scrapbook, having served as his literary agent late in Lovecraft’s life. Others proved chillier - Paul Levitz, a fanzine writer who had steadily ascended into upper management at DC, referred to Moore as his “greatest mistake,” a line that, whatever was meant by it in 1984, has bottomless depths of iciness in hindsight. 

Figure 470: The aquatic vampires of Rosewood
Illinois. (From Swamp Thing #38, 1985)
And so it was hardly a surprise that Moore would opt to explore the American-ness of his newfound success. And, given that his success was proving as a horror writer, a tribute to American horror must have seemed wholly appropriate. And on target - Levitz’s words perhaps ringing in his ear, Moore started the arc with a strangely barbed story. The choice of Rosewood, Illinois was not an arbitrary setting. Martin Pasko, early in his Swamp Thing run, wrote a story set in a town called Rosewood that featured Swamp Thing fighting vampires, with a father and son sacrificing themselves to flood the town and drown the vampires. Moore retcons this conclusion, having Constantine explain that there were vampires who hid out in freezers in the supermarket, and who were thus untouched by the running water and could simply wait for the water to become still before emerging. “They’re living down there, in Rosewood, totally unmolested,” Constantine explains. “Having a stable community has opened up lots of opportunities for them. They can settle down, after years of hiding. They can breed.” 

Figure 471: Swamp Thing regrows a body that is an entire
mountainside. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #39, 1985)
And so, suitably chastened over his failure to adequately clean up the vampires last time he encountered them, Swamp Thing trudges into the water to fight underwater vampires. This, however, goes poorly, with Swamp Thing being efficiently dismembered by the vampires’ newly hatched giant fish monster. But where this would have been a significant problem in any past issue of Swamp Thing, it instead comes after two issues that have stressed the increasing ease with which Swamp Thing can build a new body, and he reacts to being killed by a giant fish with relative casualness. “It is my own fault,” he thinks. “I am too human in the way I think… in the way I fight. I must learn to exploit the possibilities of what I am.” And after some reflection, he proceeds to reach out over the entirety of Rosewood, incarnating not in a regular sort of swamp monster body, but as an entire landscape, resulting in a fantastic half-page panel from Bissette and Totleben in which Swamp Thing’s visage is stretched out across an entire hillside as he moves the earth, rerouting the river into the lake, and making the water run once again, destroying the vampires for once and for all.

Figure 472: Vampires prove an ineffectual threat to Swamp
Thing. (Written by Marty Pasko, art by Tom Yeates, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #3, 1982)
This is, of course, utterly cheeky. Moore in effect reframes an event from before he took over the book just to show how utterly trivial and silly a threat it is under his vision for the book. The overall point of the exercise is clearly, as with several previous stories, to break with the past publication of Swamp Thing, but in this instance the comparison is aggressively direct. Moore is no longer just ripping up the past, he’s pointedly highlighting the difference and positively boasting about what his version of Swamp Thing can do that previous runs couldn’t. Moore is in effect criticizing the Pasko run for the measly nature of its threats, pointing out that his vision of Swamp Thing is so wildly powerful that some pesky vampires simply don’t register. 

This sort of negative example carries real weight. The basic plot of “Swamp Thing tours America and encounters stock horror tropes” is, after all, the premise underlying both the original Wein/Wrightson run on Swamp Thing and Pasko’s run. It’s the default mode of Swamp Thing, and while Moore may have contrived to remove the clumsy mechanism of having Swamp Thing jumping freight trains to travel (as he did when arriving in Rosewood the first time), it’s still not instinctively clear why the “American Gothic” arc is a good idea as opposed to the point where it is clear that Moore is out of ideas and has nothing better to do than the most generic Swamp Thing stories imaginable. By initially leaning into that critique by literally revisiting a past Swamp Thing story and then abruptly showing that his take on Swamp Thing fighting vampires is utterly unlike past stories, Moore makes a major statement about what he’ll be doing differently.

Figure 473: The grotesque vampire fish monster. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #39, 1985)
The effectiveness of this statement rests in part, however, on the fact that Moore makes sure to outdo Pasko’s story in other ways as well. Pasko’s story is ultimately focused on the people of Rosewood fighting back against the vampires, and treats the vampires as wholly knowable and predictable - so much so that there’s not even any descriptions of their horror that can be quoted in order to demonstrate their inadequacies. Their function within the issue is to be generic horror monsters that allow Pasko’s plot about a man so obsessed with fighting vampires he casually sacrifices his entire family to do it. But Moore, despite the fact that he is writing a story that trades in part on the fact that a bunch of vampires aren’t actually a significant threat to Swamp Thing anymore, goes to considerable length to make the vampires scary. The vampire fish monster gets a lengthy description of how it is “massive and bloated, gorged upon its siblings… it pulses and takes stock of its surroundings. It licks pulp from dreadful, splattered talons, and considers what to do next,” for instance. Moore similarly engineers a sequence that plays on many of the same themes of Pasko’s story, inverting a scene of Pasko’s where a kid is attacked by his now vampirized mother by having a vampiric child kill his mother and mock his ineffectual father, a scene with far more perversity and cruelty than any of the corresponding scenes in Pasko’s story. Perhaps most impressively, Moore includes a scene that attempts to generate empathy for the vampires. “Why must we be destroyed,” the vampires ask as they are disintegrated by the running water. “We asked for so very little. Only a home that we could call our own, some livestock to provide our food, and a safe place to raise our children.” The effect is that Moore not only demonstrates that he’s moved past stories like Pasko’s, he also casually demonstrates that he can do Pasko’s stories better than he can as well.

One consequence of the gambit Moore plays out over the course of the two-part vampire story, however, is that he forecloses a large number of story possibilities. After stories like “Rite of Spring” and the initial Floronic Man arc that demonstrated new possibilities, the vampire story was notable as a story that actively tried to close the door on a sizable category of stories. This is a dangerous game - no matter how emphatically and convincingly Moore demonstrates the flaws of the story structure, the fact remains that Swamp Thing has fewer possibilities at the end of issue #39 than it did at the start. Swamp Thing has become so thoroughly powerful that physical confrontation has become essentially irrelevant to the book. The category of things that can be meaningfully treated as threats to Swamp Thing seems, in other words, significantly reduced. And so in many ways the decision to make the next stop in the “American Gothic” tour a werewolf story is surprising, given that werewolves are acutely physical threats. 

Figure 474: Phoebe walks through the misogynistic
supermarket contemplating the Pennamaquot's Red Lodge.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #40, 1985)
But Swamp Thing #40, “The Curse,” in fact goes a long way towards demonstrating the sort of threat that Moore imagines Swamp Thing facing. On one level, the plot of “The Curse” is simple enough: Swamp Thing arrives in Kennescook, Maine just in time to confront a woman who has turned into a werewolf and gone on a rampage. But the nature of the threat in “The Curse” is not really Phoebe herself, but rather the social structure in which she exists and that fuels a rage that can only be expressed by turning into an eight foot tall snarling death beast. The story opens with Phoebe shopping, buying menstrual pads, and the atmosphere is one of claustrophobia. Moore focuses on the package of the pads, on which “a laughing woman runs through endless fields beneath a cornflower sky,” while the branding proclaims that these particular menstrual pads are “for freedom,” a description that clashes jarringly with the paralleled description of the (fictional) Pennamaquot tribe of Native Americans, which, in Moore’s description, constructed a Red Lodge “upon stilts, that its dark and sullen female power should not taint the Earth.” The purpose of the Lodge is to isolate the tribe’s women during menstruation - within it the women “were forbidden to stand, or lie down, or see the moon. They could touch nothing, even themselves.. they ate from sticks, like lepers, and the gourds that they sipped water from were afterwards smashed and buried without trace.” 

Figure 475: Phoebe imagines the rage of the
Pennamaquot women. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #40, 1985)
Phoebe imagines the Pennamaquot women’s rage at their situation, “their anger, in darkness turning, unreleased, unspoken, its mouth a red wound, its eyes hungry… hungry for the moon” as she walks the aisles - as “the checkout lady places the package in a paper bag, as if to protect her other groceries,” as she walks past a massive sign advertising the “Autumn Morn disposable douche, with the gentle scent of white flowers… for the real woman in you,” and past another advertising the wares of a porn shop, with its images of “numb-eyed women [who] stare through zippered leather masks.” Later, as she and her husband entertain guests, her husband jokes about the lodge, saying that “it was where the Indians sent their squaws when they started getting cranky around that time ‘o the month,” and one of her guests pipes up to insist that his wife not eat any more cookies because “she’s still trying to get her figure back after the kid… and that was two years ago,” and throughout this her rage festers until finally, when her husband confronts her over dinner being late, she transforms into a werewolf and begins rampaging through the town. 

Figure 476: Phoebe flings herself at a display of cutlery.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #40, 1985)
The implication of all of this is made explicit in the story’s climax, where Swamp Thing confronts Phoebe and tries to help her. “I am woman,” she proclaims. “I seek release from this stifling place that has been built for me.” On its most basic level this refers to the Red Lodge whose psychogeographic ghost haunts Kennescook, but more broadly it clearly refers to the systemic oppression that is depicted throughout the issue - one that goes beyond the material cruelty of the Red Lodge and into the bizarre dualism with which the female body is treated, on the one hand eroticized and objectified, and on the other thoroughly rejected, with its natural functions declared shameful and disgusting millstones from which women are encouraged to seek freedom, a freedom that only serves to leave them ready to be objectified and, should they fall short as objects, to be mocked as poor Joannie is for the awful crime of having her body change after giving birth. And faced with all of this, and with the fact that her rage is useless in destroying it, Phoebe opts to fling herself upon a display of steak knives, the image of which provided the issue’s opening panel, with the cruelly ironic slogan “here’s good news for housewives!”

Figure 477: Swamp Thing bears witness to Phoebe's rage.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #40, 1985)
Swamp Thing’s role in all of this is ultimately to bear witness to it. Just as Phoebe, for all her animal rage, cannot simply eliminate the systemic oppression of women, nor can Swamp Thing, for all his power. When Phoebe demands release, Swamp Thing is forced to admit that he cannot help her, and it is in the face of this that she chooses to kill herself rather than continue suffering under her rage and indignity. This serve to demonstrate the sort of threat that Swamp Thing, with his newfound powers, is best matched up with: ones in which the underlying problem is not simply a villain in need of punching, but a systemic issue that cannot actually be confronted directly like the reality of female oppression. 

“The Curse,” however, was not an uncontroversial story. Indeed, it generated so much response that the letter pages of both Swamp Thing #45 and #46 were devoted entirely to letters regarding the story. For the most part, however, these letters were in favor of the story. The only outright critical letter in Swamp Thing #45 comes from a gentleman in (ironically) Northampton, Massachusetts, and complains that Moore repeats the phrase “hungry for the moon” too often, objects to the story’s generality in speaking for all women, and complains that the display of steak knives is unrealistic (“no market worth its liabilities would ever, ever, never-ever display its cutlery so dangerously”). Of these three complaints it is, in an idiosyncrasy typical of the sorts of people who wrote in to DC letters pages in the 1980s, the steak knives that seem to be the biggest problem. [continued]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Comics Reviews (9/25/14)

Last week is last week. I shan't go back.

From worst to best.

The Sandman: Overture Special Edition #3

I wouldn't normally even count this as a release, as it's a clearly gratuitous and unnecessary publication for collectors, but I felt like I should single this issue out for having the single worst interview with Neil Gaiman that I think I've ever seen.

New Avengers #24

A good week if this is the lowest of the new comics. Several interesting things going on here, and if Hickman can (as he does here) stay focused on the characters and not wander off into endlessly and vaguely restating the same hope/anxiety positions about the nature of the future, he could manage a very sharp finale to this run. And, I mean, I have to love any comic that uses a splash page reveal of Molecule Man as its cliffhanger.

The Massive #27

Huge numbers of reveals, such that it's rather difficult to see how there are three more issues of this. I suspect that there's little this book can do to make me not feel like it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. Ultimately, I wish it had been written by Warren Ellis. Or someone who could actually do the book this is trying to be.

Chew #43

A strange sense of deja vu, inasmuch as I swear the comic has done this cover gimmick before. Plot marches on. I'll be honest, this is a book I wouldn't keep buying if issue #1 was at this level of quality, but at this point it would have to do something really infuriating to get me not to stick out to the end. Ah, the sunk costs fallacy, also known as the comic industry's business model. Of course, fridging Olive like they seem to be setting up would do it.

Mighty Avengers #14

A sweet and ruthlessly optimistic ending to the current arc, setting up the "we like this book but it's not selling so let's do a title change and a new #1" reboot with aplomb, reminding people who have been buying the book why they like it, bringing this phase to what feels like an ending, and being well set up for the next round. Plus, it's a book whose best line manages to be "Yay! Good work, team!" Which is cute.

Guardians of the Galaxy #19

OK, after a fluff of a first issue to this arc, this one is starting to grab my attention. The question of Gamora's moral judgment of Quill works for me this time in a way that it didn't the first time (probably because, having no idea of the background to this arc, I was busy being thrown by learning the questions at the same time Bendis was answering them). Curious how it resolves. And it had better resolve next issue, because I suspect three issues is a lot for this story.

Cyclops #5

This ends Rucka's bit on the book, yes? A very solid, standard Rucka issue here. Cyclops's scheme is very Rucka, and is a nice twist. And Rucka lampshades it charmingly with "kinda a stupid oath to swear if you're a bounty hunter." Then ends it on a morally ambivalent and tricky note, which is quite nice. Pity he's off the book after this - I've been quite enjoying his run.

Saga #23

Goddammit I wish I could tell the damn television people apart, or remember their backstories. But I'm pretty sure this is a good comic.

Loki Agent of Asgard #6

I'm kind of dreading Axis. It's an event whose stated premise bores me, whose first twist is actively something I hate in comics, and is by a writer I don't much like. But it's so tied into books I read that I'm stuck with it. So I approached this with trepidation. And instead got a lovely, brilliant book that serves up a great conflict. Plus it has the line "time plus space equals narrative. A time machine is a space machine is a machine for moving through narrative." Which is so tailored to me it's almost cheating, but which is more than enough to get this pick of the week.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Outside the Government: A Scandal in Belgravia

It’s January 1st, 2012. Coldplay are at nuber one with “Paradise,” with Flo Rida, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, and LMFAO also charting. Since Christmas, Samo aand Tokelau switched sides of the International Date Line, and Harry Burkhart committed two million dollars worth of damage in an arson spree in Los Angeles. 

While on television, Sherlock returns with A Scandal in Belgravia. This is, quite simply, a phenomenal piece of television. It belongs on lists alongside The West Wing’s “Two Cathedrals” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” It’s smart and ambitious, and everything it tries comes off nearly perfectly. It calmly and definitively sums up what this take on Sherlock Holmes can do, and why it’s valuable and interesting - a marvelous case of a show being its own best advertising. Even more than its barnstorming premiere, this is an episode you can show people to hook them on the show. 

With so much talent on display here, it seems silly to credit it all to Moffat. But in the end, this episode works because its script provides such a strong foundation. First and foremost, A Scandal in Belgravia consists of Moffat luxuriating in the structure of writing. Moffat has always been an intensely structural writer - as a farceur has to be, really. But more than that, Moffat has always been unafraid of foregrounding the structure, writing television in which part of the pleasure is watching the story unfold in the peculiar shape he’s put it into. 

But in the past, Moffat has relied on structural cleverness to create big, landmark episodes of series like Coupling and Press Gang where the budget didn’t give any other ways to go big. With A Scandal in Belgravia, on the other hand, he finds himself at a seeming summit of his career, with opportunities unlike any he’d had before. The ninety minute format gave him space to work that he’d never had before - he didn’t even have the obligation of a cliffhanger at the forty-five minute mark to work to. In Cumberbatch and Freeman he had as solid a cast as exists.  With Sherlock as a bona fide hit, there was the budget to do, if not whatever he wanted, at least more or less anything that might be required of an action-adventure plot. He’s got a top notch director.

The last time Moffat faced a situation like this he produced The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, but there, at least, he still had the advantage of low expectations. Here there’s no shield - Moffat’s only options are to show that he’s as brilliant as claimed or to disappoint. He didn’t disappoint. 

In many ways this comes from Sherlock’s structure, which is almost tailor made for Moffat to succeed with. The show is, by its nature, built around moments of dazzling exposition, that being, in a real sense, the entire point of Sherlock Holmes as a character. These are also the sorts of scenes Moffat excels at - he’s always been extremely good at using exposition scenes for characterization and comedy. And, of course, he has Benedict Cumberbatch, a ruthlessly methodical actor who’s capable of mapping extraordinarily nuanced paths through Moffat’s dialogue. 

All of which is to say that the episode is really structured around its finale, and three specific plot beats. The first is the revelation from Mycroft that Sherlock has been flitting around the edges of the plane plot all episode, which is both well-constructed (using the establishing montage at the outset to throw in a bunch of key details) and, more to the point, feels as though it’s wrapped up the episode. There’s enough Aristotelean unity in that to feel like things have resolved, which gives Irene’s seeming victory structural weight.

This, in turn, makes the subsequent revelation of Irene’s password all the more triumphant - especially because it’s such a well-structured reveal that manages to be as clever as it is obvious. With the plot feeling as though it’s resolved the bulk of its hanging threads, it feels like a proper reversal. What’s key is the elegance of the actual solution - we’ve seen the “I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED” screen enough times, but by filling in wrong answers we’re subtly been led away from reading the blanks as part of the phrase. Between that and the fact that the entire reveal is, in reality, just a pun, the climax lands magnificently.

Which is, in practice, all setup for the final reveal, in which Moffat opts to actively reject the standard narrative structure of this sort of thing, in which Irene gets fridged at the end. The script sets this up carefully, starting by establishing her death in dialogue between John and Mycroft, then revealing that Sherlock already knows about it (which only further hammers it home), and then finally cutting to her execution. There’s a sort of steady worsening of the situation that happens here, with each development in the resolution making it less satisfying and more exploitative, all building to the false fade-to-black, which finds one more bit of the script to pay off with the “ah” text message sound signifying the final twist away from being a story about a tragic femme fatale and towards being a story about the sort of romance a character like Sherlock can have.

Which brings us around to the actual point of this episode. It will (and has) not escaped notice that Sherlock and Irene’s relationship is not entirely unlike the relationship between the Doctor and River, not least because of Moffat’s comments in interviews in which he describes them as “psychopaths.” But where that always felt like a slightly awkward approach in Doctor Who (Moffat is surely the first person to suggest that the Doctor is a psychopath, or that he could only ever love one), it’s a sound fit for a show whose first episode openly proclaimed the main character to be a “high functioning sociopath.” Sherlock has always in part been about the fact that its main character is as broken as he is extraordinary.

But within this, the point has always been to do something other than angst over Sherlock’s frailties. Sherlock, and for that matter Moffat, has never been inclined towards deconstruction. And so instead of a dour piece about how Sherlock’s genius means he will be forever alone or some other suitably emo shit, we get a story that is interested in trying to figure out what sort of romantic partner Sherlock could ever have.

On top of this, of course, is the original text. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which has the odd double role of introducing the only character anybody ever romantically pairs Sherlock Holmes with and flagrantly not actually being about Sherlock Holmes in love. What “A Scandal in Bohemia” is about, however, is the differences between men and women - a point highlighted at the end of the story, when Watson reflects on how Holmes “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.” Further, Holmes’s monicker for Adler, “the woman,” is described with the emphasis on the definite article, highlighting the way in which the story intends to present Adler as an exemplar of her gender. (This is hammered home in the first paragraph.) 

But Adler is something of a cipher throughout the story, since Watson never actually meets her. In essence all we actually see is her making her way through a series of romantic relationships that she uses to protect her life, and given that the story refers to her as “the late Irene Adler” at one point, suggesting that her protection may have run out. All we get of her is Holmes’s general comments on how women work (which are all borne out) and the description of her victory as stemming from “a woman’s wit,” but that victory is ultimately hollow, and her wit remains wholly subjugated to men. It is not a story devoid of value, but it’s also far from straightforward. 

So with Adler being largely without characterization, Moffat had considerable leeway in how to approach this story. His approach - making her a dominatrix - is savvier than it first appears. Within the confines of what was pitched to the BBC as a “sexy” version of Sherlock Holmes, it’s obvious to point of being inevitable. There’s no way for the character not to intersect with the femme fatale archetype, and the dominatrix leans into it nicely. It’s a profession that allows Adler to not just serve as a femme fatale, but to be a hyper-competent femme fatale who does not merely incidentally serve in that role, but who is conscious and self-aware.

On top of that, Moffat writes a good dominatrix. She’s over the top, but between Lara Pulver’s acting and a wealth of little touches, she feels, if not like a real person as such, at least as rounded and realized as Sherlock and John, which counts for a lot. Perhaps more to the point, Moffat writes her as a character who is genuinely dominant - that is, as someone who is capable of controlling social interactions and getting people to do what she wants. It would be easy for such a character to become overbearing, but there’s an intriguing understatement to her dominance. Her big nude scene, where she takes control simply by not wearing any clothes and throwing everyone for a loop, is a case in point. For all its self-conscious eroticism, there’s a remarkable subtlety to the scene.

But the central cleverness isn’t simply creating an unusually nuanced dominatrix/femme fatale. It’s also in setting this up as a viable romance for Sherlock Holmes, and, as we’ve already discussed, successfully sustaining that romance in a way that doesn’t take away from either character. Nobody has to “settle down” or sacrifice parts of their identity. The implication is fairly clear that Irene and Sherlock will meet again, whether in a televised story or not. 

And it is here that the observations about structure finally come into focus. Because the reason this works is, in effect, that Moffat is able to build an entire relationship out of exposition and cleverness. Because Sherlock and Irene are both ultimately constructed as hyper-competent characters in a detective serial as opposed to people who are prone to, say, discussing or acknowledging their feelings, their relationship exists entirely in this realm. It’s all puzzles, explanations, and adventures. Which is why the hyper-structured approach of this episode works so well: because ultimately, Moffat is telling a love story in which the romance itself is pure structure.

Moffat finds, in other words, an intersection between a couple of things he’s good at and commences to build something at that intersection. But it’s striking just how weird the intersection is. Love stories and puzzle boxes are not really the same thing at all, and although Moffat has written loads of both, including the Doctor/River romance, he’s never really stripped it down to this bare a level before. The Doctor and River’s relationship was a puzzle, but the content of their relationship was mad adventures. But Sherlock and Irene are puzzle all the way down.

It helps tremendously, however, that the world around them is so crisp by this point. Sherlock and John are a well-honed double act capable of anchoring any scene, but Sherlock had that sorted out by the end of its first episode. What’s impressive at this point is the way they’ve learned to trust in Rupert Graves, Una Stubbs, and Louise Brealey, all of whom also get absolutely top drawer stuff. In an episode that borders on being lopsided given how good the Sherlock/Irene stuff is, having things like the wonderful beat of Mrs. Hudson hiding the phone or the scene of Sherlock cruelly deducing the nature of Molly’s gift before realizing who it’s for are both hugely important things that make it easy to be thrilled that the show is back, as opposed to just being happy that Benedict Cumberbatch is. And, of course, there’s Paul McGuigan, who directs this with a stunning array of interesting and vibrant camera angles that makes it feel fresh and dynamic.

When this aired, it felt brilliant in a way that, in one sense, nothing Moffat had written since Blink did. He’d written top notch scripts, certainly, and I’m not going to suggest that this is my favorite, because it’s not. But he’d not written a puzzle box this immaculately constructed in years, and certainly not one with the sweep and scale of this. To do that while also finding a genuinely new and fresh way to do a love story in an action-adventure story is remarkable. And there is, throughout A Scandal in Belgravia, a sense that Moffat knows just how good this is. He’s on his top form, working in beautiful little bits of snark like the deft implication of who it is Adler has photographs of. And, of course, there’s his underlying insistence on reworking how women in stories like this get to work - his cheeky decision to keep Irene alive really is such a brash rejection of how these things are usually done. He’s writing like a man who knows that his career is unlikely to have a better phase than this. 

Which is notable in its own right. This is around the period where a critical line against Moffat really started to crystallize - indeed, I think you can make the argument that Jane Clare Jones’s article about this story in the Guardian two days after it aired was a tipping point in the “Moffat is sexist” line of argument. My issues with this argument in the general are well-documented and don’t need to be reiterated here, but there is a sense of the tide of outspoken opinion (distinct from public opinion) turning here - just nine months after this, Moffat would opt to depart Twitter in part due to the degree of vitriol being directed at him there. And yet for all of this, notably, the sense of confidence and swagger in his writing never wavered. Much of why A Scandal in Belgravia works as well as it does is the fact that it’s willing to aim high and trust that the talent of everyone involved will carry the production over the line. That hasn’t always worked, and it won’t always work. But when it does, as with this, it’s electrifying. 

And perhaps more than anything, then, it’s worth noting that there’s a reason why Steven Moffat’s career crescendos here, and why he found himself in the position of writing and overseeing two of the BBC’s biggest hits. He’s very, very good at writing television. And on his best days, he’s practically untouchable. This is a case in point. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

I Owe it To My Friend To Try, Because I Got Her Into This (The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe)

In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as a cardboard box.
It’s December 25th, 2011. A group assembled under the name “Military Wives” are at number one with “Wherever You Are,” which is more or less the song you’d expect, with Coldplay, Flo Rida, and Little Mix also charting. In news, since The Sarah Jane Adventures took its bow Muammar Gaddaffi was killed in Libya, the Curiosity rover was launched by NASA, and the global population hit seven billion. 

While on television is The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, which is, apparently, the worst thing Moffat has ever done, the second-worst story of the Moffat era, the third-worst of the new series as a whole, and the thirteenth-worst story of all time, coming in just ahead of Paradise Towers and just behind The King’s Demons, but notably beaten by Warriors of the Deep, The Time Monster, and The Horns of Nimon. Or at least, that’s the word from the Doctor Who Magazine 50th Anniversary survey, which also thinks that Day of the Doctor is the best story ever and that Frontios is inferior to The Android Invasion, and that The Celestial Toymaker is superior to stories that aren’t The Twin Dilemma, so is perhaps… inclined towards error. 

But this gets at an issue worth exploring at least a little, which is that there are two mutually contradictory narratives of the Moffat era. In one, the initial promise of the great writer of Blink and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was steadily squandered on a stream of mediocrity and repetition that has steadily driven people away from the show. In the other, the show remains stubbornly popular without any real evidence of people being driven away, especially when you consider that a statistically significant number of people have migrated to watching on iPlayer, which still isn’t counted in ratings figures. That one of these is based on personal preference while the other is based on the actual metric of success in the television industry is, of course, basically irrelevant. These are, it seems, the two options.

Still, it’s worth entertaining the myriad of criticisms frequently made of The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, if only to see if any of them have any substance to them. Let’s start with the most idiosyncratic, if only because they are the ones it is possible to mount the biggest case against the story over. For instance, the observation that the “women are strong because they can be mothers” twist is transphobic. Which… well, it’s not. It’s cisnormative, certainly, but just as heteronormative and homophobic are not actually synonyms, neither are cisnormative and transphobic, and while I am well aware that, as a cis person, I don’t get a vote in this, I would nevertheless, in a purely advisory capacity, strongly suggest that the trans activist community start realizing that a more nuanced vocabulary for discussing trans oppression might be useful.

Which is to say that while it’s certainly the case that there are many ways the story could have been more trans-inclusive, this is an accurate but fairly minor complaint, not least because any way to make the story more trans-inclusive would have involved being a very different story. I was talking to Anna about this, and she suggested a plot based around Madge not being the children’s biological mother, which would have been great, yes. You can imagine the scene in which Madge tearfully explains that she can’t possibly fly the ship because she’s not really a mother, and the Doctor looking at her like she’s got two heads and saying some version of “of course you are, don’t be ridiculous,” and it’s a lovely scene, except that it moves the emphasis away from saving Reg. You could have that be an incidental detail, but that doesn’t keep with the theme-explicit-in-dialogue aesthetic that dominates not just Doctor Who but popular fiction right now. 

Moving down the list, there’s the “he followed me home and wouldn’t stop unless I married him” bit in Madge and Reg’s dating history, which, yes, again, a valid objection, but strangely nobody gets furious at Say Anything, the cultural touchstone for the “following her is romantic” image. I wish the line weren’t there, but one line in one scene that’s sexist in a way that’s gobsmackingly common in popular culture does not constitute a particularly effective critique of an entire episode. If it did, The God Complex wouldn’t come anywhere close to surviving that appalling “Amy Williams” line. And anyway, given that the major critics of this episode are the people who persist in putting The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the top ten, I think it’s pretty clear that the objections to this story are not actually well-reasoned social justice critiques.

To be honest, given the tedious myopia of large swaths of Doctor Who fandom, it’s more likely that the objection is the story’s “men are weak/women are strong” bit. The objection here is, in its dumbest form, one that uses phrases like “misandry” and “reverse sexism,” but there’s at least a sane and sympathetic version that says that the goal should be equality, and that saying things like “men are weak and women are strong” is just as harmful as the reverse. For my part, though… it doesn’t feel like enough to simply have there be things that don’t say that women are inferior to men, given how many things there are in the world that say that they are. I wish we didn’t live in a world where it was necessary to provide counter-programming to systemic cultural sexism, but ultimately, I think we do, and that stories about how women are strong and mothers are awesome and powerful are actually important. When there is a massive power imbalance in the world, it generally cannot be rectified simply by giving power to the disenfranchised side - power must also be taken away from the more privileged. There are, of course, arguments to the contrary, and you are welcome to remind me what they are in comments, but the truth is, I’ve heard them and am unpersuaded, so, you know, I’m not really sure what else to say there.

Which leaves one major line of attack on this story, which is that it’s silly.

As you can imagine, this is not a line of attack I find particularly persuasive. Certainly this seems to me an episode that is perfectly aware of how silly it’s being. Which means that the argument that it’s flawed because it’s silly amounts to an argument that silliness is inherently a bad thing for Doctor Who, which is, I think, a completely untenable position. Yes, this episode pushes the “Matt Smith as goofy comedy Doctor” idea about as far as it can be pushed. I’d say that Smith’s Doctor veers uncomfortably close to self-parody here, but that’s frankly understating the case. His Doctor sails merrily into self-parody here. If you hate that sort of thing, you’ll hate this. But for my money, nothing captures the way Smith’s Doctor works quite like his mask of lemonade taps and spinning chairs dropping when he’s alone with Madge, and his calm, polite, and piercing explanation of why she keeps yelling at her children. “Because they’re going to be sad later” is a line that sums up so much of what there is to love about Smith’s take on the character.

But perhaps more to the point, and it seems slightly incredible that this should need to be pointed out, but The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe is unabashedly Doctor Who aimed at the young end of its audience. Which… is a tough thing to get bent out of shape about. Ultimately, this is Doctor Who doing Box of Delights, inasmuch as Box of Delights isn’t just the best story of Season 6B. (Really, I should add it as an Outside the Government if I redo the Troughton book.) And so everything is played simply, with an eye towards broad iconography. World War II finally completes its strange gradual descent from being an unspeakable but omnipresent moment of historical context in The Daleks to finally being actually representable in The Curse of Fenric to, nearly another quarter-century later, simply being one of the heritage theme parks that Doctor Who can pop into. (Indeed, this is another reason why the Reg following Madge business only bothers me a middling amount - because that “I didn’t want to make a fuss” seems to me to be more of a “keep calm and carry on” joke than one about gender relations. Still bad though.) The forest is self-evidently Ancient Celtic Britain redressed as an alien planet, and if you think anything that happens after the first giant tree person shows up needs more explanation than it got then you’re coming at it the wrong way. Everything you need to know is there in the basic image of a monolithic tree queen in a tower standing over the throne, waiting to crown whomever sits in it. 

So what we have is a story that uses the narrative structure and iconography of The Lion, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (and Lewis has always been a sort of secret ghost for Doctor Who, dying the same day it premiered) to do a story about how women are awesome with strong ecological themes. It’s not what you’d call subtle, but again, it’s not trying to be - and it seems to me tough to argue that this isn’t a story that knows what it’s doing and is  It’s trying to be a seven-year-old’s favorite Christmas DVD, and one suspects that there are few polls around that are going to give any real clue how good a job it did at that. 

So why is it hated? Certainly the other moments in the new series where Doctor Who has overtly and consciously done children’s television are panned as well, though casting this down with the worst of the lot, Fear Her, really does seem harsh. As, really, does putting Fear Her in the second to last slot, suggesting that there really is a fandom bias against treating Doctor Who as children’s television, which does seem a bit pathological. But even that doesn’t quite explain the reputation of this one.

One suspects, then, that the answer is that it came at an awkward moment in the transmission schedule. It’s notable that The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe ended without even a hint as to when the series would return, or what with. There was no trailer and no gesture towards the future. This is largely because production was still a good few months from starting on Season Seven, and Doctor Who wasn’t going to be appearing for about eight months due to a clear delay in production that appears to have been caused by the discovery that Moffat couldn’t actually produce a season each of Doctor Who and Sherlock in a year without killing himself. 

This went over predictably poorly in some circles. I’m pretty sure Ian Levine called it evil, like he does. I mean, this must come as a shock to nobody - the sorts of people who believe they have some sort of inherent right to fourteen episodes of Doctor Who a year are also the sorts of people who hate the idea that Doctor Who might sometimes mainly be for seven-year-olds and not them. As I said, pathological. And it explains the thumping this took in the polls and among fandom. And sure, as “the last piece of Doctor Who you’re getting for lord knows how long,” this isn’t any fan’s desired sendoff. But it’s worth noting that this was, generally speaking, a quite well-reviewed episode that seems to have gone down quite well with the public. And while it’s easy to list quibbles with it, at the end of the day, it does feel rather like shouting “bah humbug” at a bunch of kids unwrapping a present. That so much of what constitutes Doctor Who fandom is willing to do just that says, frankly, very little about us that’s good.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Time Heist Review

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Right, so, circumstances mean I can get this review up very quickly, and I’m taking the temperature of the fans who rated it on GallifreyBase within ten minutes of it airing. Two hundred and sixty-one raters, 55.55% of which are rating 8-10. Another 22.22% at a 7. About an hour later, and it’s still running right around there. For comparison, that puts it roughly in line with where the polls on Journey to the Center of the TARDIS and The Bells of St. John settled down, which suggests this one is going to be somewhat harshly remembered (although Rings of Akhaten got something more like 35% 8-10, so it’s merely a rough ride, not a drubbing). I politely disagree - I rather liked it. Although I can see the faults, on the whole, they were not unduly distracting for me. 

Still, it’s notable that this is by one of the less popular recurring writers. If Steve Thompson can be said to have one defining stylistic tic, it is that he is prone to creating elaborate plots and then populating them with thin cartoons of actual characters. The cynic might accuse Moffat of the same thing, although I obviously disagree, and certainly think Time Heist illustrates the difference. Which is to say that Sai is everyone’s first Shadowrun character, and Sabra is blatantly Rogue from the X-Men with the serial numbers filed off and a less sensible superpower, and it’s clear very little thought has gone into either of them past picking where to nick them from, in a way that just flatly isn’t true of… really any Moffat character who gets as many lines as either of them do, but let’s say Clara, just to really make the point. Although in this case, there’s barely any characterization of Clara or the Doctor either - it’s pretty much a straight shot high-paced thriller.

This isn’t, of course, inherently a problem, or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. It’s perfectly possible to have the elaborate plot be interesting enough to carry the story, and Time Heist illustrates this. Its central plot dynamic is terribly clever, in that it allows for exposition and plot twists to happen organically at more or less any moment. The heist itself provides a continual forward momentum, but all the key plot revelations concern things that have already happened, which makes for a neat structure that keeps things moving. 

There are, of course, some proper plot holes. (How exactly did the Doctor seed the bank with all of those cases without triggering the Teller?) But they’re proper refrigerator logic plot holes - ones that you don’t notice them until you sit down and think about it later. (See also the descendants of the murdered Viking settlers in The Curse of Fenric, which took me decades and Tat Wood to notice. Which is to say, plot holes like the days of old.) For the most part, this is a story to just sit down and enjoy. It’s not that it doesn’t hold up to rewatching - between watching for the Slate podcast (see bullet points) and this, I’ve seen it three times now, and I enjoyed it each time. But it very much puts it all on the screen, as it were.

All of which said, I find myself wanting to knock the production a little bit - specifically the tedious overuse of colored lighting. On a hunch, I went and snagged the leaked workprint of this, and as I kind of suspected, it looks far better in black and white, simply because the bank actually feels stately and monolithic. By attempting to redress whatever location provided the tunnels with lighting gels, they only ended up highlighting the degree to which this episode is almost entirely comprised of corridor runs, and, worse, corridor runs through frightfully drab corridors, in a story where the entire point is how posh the setting is. I mean, yes, a corridor run is the heart and soul of Doctor Who, but Time Heist seems slightly embarrassed by the preponderance of corridors, and embarrassed in a way that makes them slightly embarrassing.

On the brighter side is the Teller, which is one of the best alien designs in a while - one that actually feels properly alien. After making magic out of a monster that never appears last episode, this time they really show the degree to which Doctor Who uses its special effects well. It’s not that the Teller is “realistic,” a word I don’t even know how to apply to it, but rather that the Teller looks like good CGI. The moment it appears, you recognize it as a CGI monster, but it’s impressive as an object of design, as opposed to as an illusion. And Doctor Who has learned to go for that approach in a satisfying way. (Edit: Apparently it wasn't CGI, so that's an amusing error, although my point about focusing on design over realism stands, I think, regardless of the physical construction.)

Beyond that, the story works in the way that a lot of good Doctor Who stories work, which is by finding a genre Doctor Who hasn’t actually crashed into yet, but that’s a natural fit for Doctor Who. The intrinsically anarchic aesthetic of Doctor Who is a natural fit for the heist film. The long tradition of bank robbers (and criminals in general) as heroes is one that, while it might not be entirely accurate to say that Doctor Who fits into it every week, it at least fits into often enough for this to be an incredibly natural pairing. And yet it’s one that Doctor Who has never really done, although I suppose you could try to argue for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship having the same basic plot structure.

On top of that, it finds two very specifically Doctor Who twists on it. The first, of course, is the addition of time travel to the heist structure, which we’ve already discussed in terms of its benefits for the speed of plot advancement. The second is the late turn from being a heist to being a rescue mission, with the revelation that the Teller is not, in fact, a monster but a sympathetic victim of the bank’s abuses - a move that fits into Moffat’s general aversion towards straightforward villains. Both are solid, and the decision to leave them until relatively late in the episode means that they work as twists (although there’s a case to be made that the first one is excessively given away by the title), allowing the episode to first milk the “Doctor Who bank robbery” angle straightforwardly, and then to successively add its clever tricks. It’s not a classic, but is yet another instance where the meat and potatoes episodes are coming off well, with almost all their tricks working.

Which puts us nearly half a season in, and still, for my money at least, without any turkeys. The two credits that were perhaps most nerve-wracking are now past, and worked. One can’t imagine Gareth Roberts screwing up too badly, although I suppose the one exception to that is the other time he was rewritten. There’s the three new boys, who are all unknowns for Doctor Who (and, more frustratingly, boys), but at this point we’re starting to get to the point where we can say with some confidence that this is a solid season. Certainly it’s the strongest opening five episodes we’ve seen in the new series.
  • I see a lot of criticism of the Doctor’s regularly insulting Clara, which is I suppose understandable, but seems to me a misreading of the situation. The point isn’t that the Doctor is insulting Clara - it’s that he’s humorously bad at giving compliments because he doesn’t actually understand humans or human form. Take last episode - “you’ve taken your make up off,” he says, clearly wrongly, and then, when that’s pointed out, he attempts to soften the accidental insult with “you probably just missed a bit,” rather spectacularly deepening the hole. The “insulting Clara” jokes are the same as his “you’re taller… do you have to reach a high shelf” joke this episode, ultimately. 
  • The Abslom Daak appearance is, of course, doubly sweet when you realize this episode was filming right around when Steve Moore died, and that it was likely a conscious tribute. Also, the other images are almost as good - I love the Sensorite. 
  • This is the last of the episodes that leaked in advance, so there’s a sense in which we’re moving into “Phase Two” of the season - a sense that’s heightened by the shift to new writers coming after next week, and the shift in transmission time coming next week.
  • Fun counterfactual - how would this episode have been changed by yes winning the independence referendum? For that matter, how was it changed by no winning?
  • As mentioned, I’m a guest on Slate’s Doctor Who podcast, which, as I understand it, will post at this link for Slate Plus members after US transmission this evening. You can join Slate Plus on a two-week trial to grab it and check it out. I had fun with it, certainly.
  • Rankings!
  1. Listen
  2. Deep Breath
  3. Time Heist
  4. Into the Dalek
  5. Robot of Sherwood